2016 Kia Sorento Diesel I-4 European-Spec First Drive
In the same year that Kia is celebrating 20 years of selling cars in the U.S., it’s busy smashing every one of its sales records. Last year Kia shifted just over 500,000 units — itself a company record — but already in the first three-quarters of 2014 it’s sold more than 445,000. And there’s more to come with a brand-new, Georgia-built Sorento midsize crossover (Kia’s third best-selling model behind the Optima and Soul) due in showrooms in early 2015. We skipped the line and traveled to South Korea to drive a European-spec version way ahead of schedule.
While we won’t have detailed U.S. specs until the car debuts at the L.A. show later this month, we do know that the Sorento’s styling isn’t likely to change one bit. That’s because the design was sketched at its sprawling new Namyang Design Center in Hwaseong, South Korea, with a global audience in mind. Some might call it bland — Kia calls it sophisticated — but the smooth surfaces and simple graphics for the grille, front intakes, headlights, and taillights are unlikely to divide opinion. Look closely and there are flourishes to be found, such as the 3-D diamond-pattern grille, but the emphasis is very much on quality ahead of daring design.
Nowhere is that more evident than with the new interior (designed at Kia’s European design center in Frankfurt, Germany), which is smothered in soft-touch surfaces and higher-quality materials than existing Kia customers will be used to. Taking pride of place is a new, larger widescreen display framed by an expensive-looking brushed-aluminum effect plastic. Below that are two banks of switchgear finished in matte black, with gloss plastics on the side of the transmission tunnel. It’s hardly revolutionary stuff, but Kia knows if it wants to shift the brand image upward, it needs to execute the basics well.
The basics for a crossover means getting the cabin functionality right, too, and the designers have hit the nail on the head. The 2016 Sorento is available with five or seven seats, and we’d strongly recommend going for the latter because there’s very little to lose. When you don’t need the third row of seats (big enough for adults, but only for short trips), they fold flush into the floor at the tug of a cord, boosting trunk capacity. Pull a pair of levers in the side of the trunk, and the 60/40 split second row follows suit and flops forward, opening up additional storage space. The second row slides back and forth, too, if you’re prepared to sacrifice some of your legroom for those squashed into the third row.
The 2016 Sorento’s wheelbase has grown by 3 inches to 109.4 inches, the overall length has stretched by 3.8 inches to 188.2 inches, while the height has shrunk by less than an inch to 66.3 inches. By repositioning the seat cushions in the back, Kia has managed to free up some extra headroom to go with the extra legroom, despite the reduction in height. Opting for the full-length glass roof floods the interior with light and magnifies the sense of spaciousness.
We expect the U.S. version will be offered with a choice between the 290-hp, 3.3-liter direct-injection V-6 from the Sedona and a tweaked 2.4-liter four-cylinder unit with around 190 hp, but the only engine we had the opportunity to try was the 200-hp, 2.2-liter turbodiesel with 325 lb-ft of torque aimed primarily at the diesel-loving European market. Judging by the much-improved refinement of the diesel model, though, the gas versions should be a smooth as silk. Thicker soundproofing behind the dashboard and wrapped around the transmission tunnel means that vibrations are kept to a minimum, and providing you don’t rev the diesel to the redline, it buzzes away gently in the background while the excellent six-speed auto slips quietly between the ratios.
With a healthy slug of torque available in the midrange the Sorento shifts itself quicker than its 0-62 mph time of 9.6 seconds would have you believe, but it always feels more at home cruising around gently. That’s largely because the electromechanical steering system is overly light, which we can forgive, but it never offers any real feedback in the corners. The fixed-rate spring and dampers provide a nicely cushioned ride if the surface is smooth, but go for a top-spec model with up to 19-inch rims, and things get a bit too bumpy over scarred surfaces, which is a shame because the rims look great.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the way the way the Sorento grips, though, thanks to the part-time all-wheel-drive system that sends power to the rear axle when it senses slip at the front. Lateral grip is excellent in fast corners, and while there’s body roll and understeer if you push it too hard, within its normal operating window, the Sorento has impressive poise and balance for a three-row, midsize SUV.
Kia’s business plan isn’t about needless expansion or flooding the market with endless derivatives — it’s about focusing on its core models and steadily improving the things that really matter to most customers, such as quality and running costs. Justification of its strategy came with its highest-ever J.D. Power Initial Quality Study (IQS) ranking — sixth among all manufacturers — and the Sorento builds on that base.
The excitement comes in 2016, when Kia will launch a V-8-powered rear-wheel-drive four-door coupe based on the 2012 GT concept, something confirmed by a source close to the company. That will possibly be followed by a production version of the stunning V-6-engined GT4 Stinger sports car concept in 2017, but for now the Sorento encapsulates the brand values perfectly and should ensure Kia’s unprecedented run of success in the U.S. continues unabated.